Lawyer weighs the social costs of mass tort litigation against Big Pharma

12 June 2019

International lawyer Mary Bartkus, Special Counsel at Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP, shared her firsthand experience of cases involving multibillion dollar claims against Big Pharma at Wolfson College last night in her lecture entitled The Cost to Society of Pharmaceutical Mass Tort Litigation.

The lecture, delivered fifteen years on from Merck & Co., Inc.’s decision to withdraw from the market its innovative painkiller Vioxx (Rofecoxib), taken by millions of users worldwide, considered the negative consequences of such mass tort litigation brought by thousands of claimants in response to concerns over the safety of the drug.

Over the course of twelve years from 2004 until 2016, Merck spent c.$10 billion defending litigation around the world, money which was as a consequence unavailable to fund the research and development of new, life-saving medicines.

Around 20 million patients in the US alone took Vioxx, where it was the best-selling arthritis and pain medicine, in addition to the many millions more in 80+ countries around the world.

Following the award of $253 million to one claimant in Texas (a verdict which was overturned over three years later) legal firms around the world began advertising for thousands of other claimants to sue Merck, finding many tens of thousands of individuals who sued personal injury claims against Merck in the US alone.

In reaction to the settlement, The Financial Times wrote in 2007: “[Vioxx] may well be remembered best in years to come for its effect on the entire pharmaceuticals industry – not just on Merck. Two long-term effects of Vioxx are clear: a new and more cautious handling of drug risks by US regulators, drugmakers, doctors and patients; and a more aggressive defence posture by drugs companies, facing mass litigation.”

Bartkus concluded the lecture by noting that, as a consequence of this international litigation, medics were left with no alternative but to prescribe for sufferers of chronic pain drugs that had a weaker gastrointestinal safety profile than did Vioxx, and $10 billion dollars spent defending the litigation was not available to fund as many as four or more life-saving medicines, begging the question: Who won and who lost?

A transcript of the lecture is available to download below, and a policy brief will be published on our Publications pages in the coming months.